Surf therapy: a growing movement to address mental health

September 29, 2021 | Surfing
Surf therapy: an established form of therapeutic support for mental and physical health worldwide | Photo: The Wave Project

Surf therapy is a method of health intervention that combines surfing and surf instructing alongside structured group or individual activities that promote psychological, physical, and psychosocial well-being.

Over the past ten years, this type of therapy has become an established form of therapeutic support for mental and physical health worldwide.

In the United Kingdom, it is recognized by the National Health Service (NHS) as an effective form of therapy for children and young people at risk of mental illness.

Surf therapy has also been used to support veterans in the United States, stroke victims in the Netherlands, deprived communities in South Africa, and adults with psychological conditions in Australia and South America.

In 2021, it's safe to say that surf therapy has become a truly global movement.

Surf therapy: it promotes positive attitudes, better communication skills, a healthier lifestyle, and progress in education | Photo: The Wave Project

Mounting Research Shows Evidence-Based Health Benefits

While it's easy to find people who are able to talk about the transformational impact surf therapy has had on their lives, these positive effects are increasingly backed up by research.

Several studies now show the beneficial, tangible impact of surf therapy on mental and emotional health.

For example, independent research commissioned by The Wave Project - the surf therapy charity I founded for children and young people based in the UK - revealed a statistically significant change to the well-being of participants after our intervention.

A peer-review by the journal Community Practitioner, published in January 2015, found that The Wave Project intervention resulted in a significant and sustained increase in health and happiness levels and behavior change.

Seventy-nine percent of parents reported a more positive attitude, and sixty-two percent revealed better communication skills in their children.

Fifty-six percent thought they showed a healthier lifestyle after participation, and 46 percent knew of progress in education since the course.

The conclusions from this analysis were clear.

When delivered in a supportive environment, with opportunities for continuation and volunteering, surfing provides profound and long-term benefits to the well-being of children facing social and emotional isolation.

The Wave Project: surfing provides profound and long-term benefits to the well-being of children facing social and emotional isolation | Photo: The Wave Project

Surfing Against Post-Conflict Mental Health Disorders

There is interesting evidence to show the profound impact of surf therapy on young people in post-conflict settings.

Young people in post-conflict and post-epidemic contexts such as Sierra Leone face many mental health challenges as part of their daily lives.

A recent study involving surf therapy pilots run by five youth-focused and community development organizations around Freetown found that participation in the organization's intervention generated large positive effects on mental health.

A separate study alongside Waves for Change in neighboring Liberia suggests that such positive effects are down to safe spaces, positive social connections, and respite from negative emotions inherent within surf therapy delivery.

These elements were identified as often lacking in participants' wider lives within a challenging post-conflict environment.

Increasingly, surf therapy interventions are used to provide support to those operating in "blue light" services - namely, the police, fire services, and emergency responders.

In 2017, two police sergeants, Sam Davies and James Mallows set up Surfwell, a health promotion project that uses a recreational surfing adventure experience to promote workplace mental health within the police force, after an officer they supervised was left traumatized by an attack.

The program is specifically designed to address the escalating mental health crisis in the UK emergency services linked to workplace stress.

A 2016 online poll conducted by the charity MIND found that one in four emergency service workers in the UK had contemplated suicide, and two-thirds had considered leaving their job.

In many instances, traditional clinical interventions had failed to help, showing a clear need for other forms of support for police officers and other emergency services workers.

Surf therapy: five days of intensive surfing during the chronic phase of stroke or trauma has an impressive, positive effect on functional outcomes, participation levels, and mental well-being | Photo: The Wave Project

Surf Therapy for Neurological Disorders

There is also increasing interest in the beneficial impact of surf therapy interventions on those who have experienced strokes and other neurological disorders.

In The Netherlands, surf therapist Tijs van Bezeij founded the surftherapie.nl foundation after an experience working with a 20-year-old boy who had been hospitalized for rehabilitation after a major stroke.

The center is predicated on the understanding that challenging therapy in a rigorous, high-intensity environment generates the best results for stroke rehabilitation.

A pilot study by the foundation shows that five days of intensive surfing during the chronic phase of stroke or trauma has an impressive, positive effect on functional outcomes, participation levels, and mental well-being.

The study represents the participants' experience, demonstrates the continued recovery of the brain and the acceleration of recovery through challenging activities such as surfing.

What Next for Surf Therapy?

Increasingly, independent research is confirming what many of us engaged in surf therapy witness all the time: surf therapy works.

As a surf therapist, the challenge now is to build on this research surf therapy reaches more people who really need it.

At the 2021 International Surf Therapy Organization conference, surf therapy practitioners - including speakers from the organizations mentioned above - will join academics and campaigners in the UK's surfing hotspot Cornwall to discuss what lies ahead for surf therapy as a mental health intervention.

Hosted by The Wave Project, the theme of the very first International Surf Therapy Organization conference to be held in Europe is "Building Trust."

For many people who participate in surf therapy, this is a crucial element of their recovery.

The conference aims to bring together leading surf therapy organization heads to build on best practices, learn from one another and discuss how to broaden accessibility and improve our services.

For tickets to the 2021 International Surf Therapy Organization Conference on October 6-8, please visit The Wave Project website at www.waveproject.co.uk.


Words by Joe Taylor | CEO and Founder of The Wave Project